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Erich Priebke, Convicted Nazi Criminal, Is Dead at 100

Erich Priebke, a former German SS officer behind one of the worst massacres in Italy during World War II and an important figure in Italy’s struggle to reckon with its wartime past, died Oct. 11 in Rome. He was 100.

The Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported his death, citing an announcement by Priebke’s lawyer.

In Rome, two sites have come to represent the battles and brutality that wracked the city and country during the war: Via Rasella, a street not far from the Trevi Fountain, and the Ardeatine Caves on the outskirts of the capital. Their significance in Priebke’s life became public five decades after the war, when ABC’s Sam Donaldson confronted him on camera about the following history:

Priebke was second in command at the Gestapo headquarters in Rome on March 23, 1944, when a bomb exploded in Via Rasella and killed as many as 33 Germans marching along the street. That incident — a spectacular attack in the campaign waged by anti-Fascist Italian partisans — enraged the highest ranks of the Nazi leadership. Years later, Priebke would say that Adolf Hitler personally responded with the order to execute 10 Italians for every German killed.

Nazi troops in Rome, whose commanding officers included Priebke, exceeded that demand. Over the next 24 hours, they trucked 335 Italian men and boys out of the city and called them five at a time into the Ardeatine Caves where, by candlelight, they shot the victims in the back of the head.

Other atrocities claimed more Italian lives. More than 500 died in the massacre in the Tuscan town of Sant’Anna di Stazzema, an incident that received renewed attention in the United States because of James McBride’s 2002 novel Miracle at St. Anna and the subsequent Spike Lee film with the same title.

But no mass killing in Italy was as methodical as the slaughter at the Ardeatine Caves, said Alessandro Portelli, author of The Order Has Been Carried Out, a definitive account of the massacre and its transformative effect on Rome. Priebke admitted to killing two of the victims and checking off the others’ names as the troops led them in.

“It really is the symbol of the violence of the Nazi occupation,” Portelli said.

After the war, Priebke escaped from a British POW camp and emigrated to Argentina, where he ran a delicatessen and led a German-Argentine cultural association. He did not attempt to disguise his identity. When the ABC television crew approached him in the early 1990s, Priebke did not appear surprised. Yes, he had been in the Gestapo in Rome in 1944, he told Donaldson, and, yes, he was present when the executions began.

“I feel very bad. Nobody from us wanted to do that,” he told Donaldson. “At that time an order was an order. ... I was a Nazi and young man. ... Many young men do things when they are old men like me, now they are very sorry about it.”

With that report, Priebke’s private life in his idyllic Andean town came to an end. Days later, when Italy moved for his extradition, he was placed under house arrest. In November 1995, after the Argentine Supreme Court rejected his bid to remain in that country, Priebke found himself back in Rome.

So began years of legal wrangling that, like many war crimes trials, showed the difficulty of fitting history into the four walls of a courtroom.

The first complaint about the trial was that it took place in a military court. That rankled many Italians because they considered Priebke’s alleged offenses worse than violations of an austere military code.